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Zone Deployment Optimization: Comparing Dustin Byfuglien at forward and defense in all three zones

Where does Byfuglien play best in all three zones?

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Recently Justin Bourne released a must-read article determining whether optimal deployment of Dustin Byfuglien is as a forward or defenseman. Bourne used video to study Byfuglien's habits under both deployments, much like a NHL coach would. In the article, Bourne shows examples of the typical defensive zone shift with Byfuglien the forward versus the defender. He then comes to the conclusion that Byfuglien is a better blue-line player than forward.

But what do the on-ice results say?

Last week AIH introduced a new way to evaluate and study hockey players and deployment strategies. However, face off conditional Corsi is not the only new tool available; there is also the microstate statistics such as zone entries and zone exits.

Let's use these tools to see if the numbers align with the eye-test of an experienced analyst.

Note: Byfuglien is only used as a forward for 5v5 minutes, and therefore, only 5v5 minutes will be used for comparison.

Defensive Zone

The defensive zone is probably the most controversial area about Byfuglien. While not one single coach that used Big Buff as a forward cited defensive zone coverage as a reason, some fans have proclaimed it to be the reason.

Post Defensive Zone Face Off Shot Attempt Rates:


Click the image to expand.
Left is Byfuglien the defenseman, while right is Byfuglien the forward.
The lines represent the rate of shot attempts. Black is shot attempts for with the player on the ice, which you want to have higher than red (shot attempts for with the player off the ice). Blue is the shot attempts against with the player on the ice, which you want lower than green (shot attempts against with player off the ice).

The results here are interesting and unexpected. Neither variant of Byfuglien seems to have an overly significant effect in shot against repression. The defenseman version does appear to have minimally better repression, but it's very minor. The forward version though seems to be better at promoting shot volume for, which is also unexpected.

Byfuglien the defender represses shots against minimally, while slightly increasing shot volume for. Byfuglien the forward though may be increasing shot volume minimally, but seems to significantly increase shot volume for.

Microstatistics - Zone Exit:

A skater plays in the defensive zone for more than just after defensive zone face offs. Bourne adequately covered Byfuglien's defensive zone coverage. What remains then is when the Jets have possession of the puck.

Touches Success% Turnover% Icing%
Byfuglien (D) 991 22.3% 6.3% 1.8%
Jets Defenders (excl. Buff) 5376 20.4% 7.0% 1.7%

Byfuglien (F) 40 30.0% 2.5% 7.5%
Jets Forwards (exl. Buff) 3688 40.2% 6.7% 1.3%

Believe it or not, Byfuglien turned over the puck far below typical for the Jets defensemen when considering how often each player had the puck. In fact, the only player with a lower Turnover% than Buff was Tobias Enstrom (4.9%). Jets defense Turnover% rises to 7.9% when excluding both Enstrom and Byfuglien; however, they handle the puck often, which leads to the belief that they turnover the puck more often. For context, twelve defensmen played at least a shift for the Jets, yet Tobi+Buff accounts for over a third of the Jets' Touches.

Byfuglien moves the puck well. Relative to the rest of the Jets defenders, Byfuglien successfully breaks out of the defensive zone more often and turns over the puck less often. The Success% is the most important of the three. This relationship doesn't hold true as a forward, although the sample is extremely small. While Byfuglien's 30.0% Success% as a forward may seem superior, it is far below the Jets 40.2% norm for forwards. His turnover rate is lower as a forward, but his icing rate is higher. With a larger sample, both values are likely to regress more towards the norm.

The Byfuglien Effect: Reduction in Save Percentage

This topic has come up before. Detractors of Byfuglien as a defenseman usually point out that Byfuglien has experienced a low save percentage while in Winnipeg. Recently we looked at the "Byfuglien Effect" with a best guess estimate of -0.00159 Sv%. With Byfuglien's high shots against rates, that adds up to about one additional 5v5 goal against a season on average.

Of course, there is strong evidence that it may be even less.

Neutral Zone

The eye-test struggles to evaluate players on neutral zone play, most likely due to the untrained eye-test typically depends on direct impact and not indirect. Yet, recent research indicates that neutral zone play may be the dominant driver in determining a team's shot differential outside.

Post Neutral Zone Face Off Shot Attempt Rates:


Click the image to expand.
Left is Byfuglien the defenseman, while right is Byfuglien the forward.
The lines represent the rate of shot attempts. Black is shot attempts for with the player on the ice, which you want to have higher than red (shot attempts for with the player off the ice). Blue is the shot attempts against with the player on the ice, which you want lower than green (shot attempts against with player off the ice).

That is a huge difference. The Jets tend to get out attempted Byfuglien off the ice; however, only with Byfuglien on the ice as a defenseman do the Jets tend to out attempt after a neutral zone faceoff. Some video analysis, much like Bourne's work would do wonders to see why Byfuglien hurts the Jets so much as a forward after neutral zone face offs.

Microstatistics - Zone Entry:

Neutral zone microstatistics first started with zone entries. Eric Tulsky (et al.) found that the major driver of shot production came from play in the neutral zone.

Player # of entries Shots per entry # of carry-ins Shots per carry-in % of entries with control # of dump-ins Shots per dump-in
Byfuglien (D) 124 0.65 47 0.74 37.9% 77 0.60
Jets Defenders (excl. Buff) 580 0.45 140 0.75 24.1% 440 0.35

Byfuglien (F) 31 0.42 17 0.59 54.8% 14 0.21
Jets Forwards (excl. Buff) 2415 0.50 1138 0.74 47.1% 1277 0.28

Byfuglien likes to carry the puck. This explains why Byfuglien tends to have a higher percentage of entries with control in both cases.

However, both with control and when dumping the puck, the Jets generate more offense with Byfuglien the defenseman. In terms of offense generation, the order falls Byfuglien the defenseman, Jets forwards (excl. Buff), Jets defenders (excl. Buff), and finally Byfuglien the forward.

Microstatistics - Denial of Opposition Zone Entry:

The obvious byproduct to research in zone entries came the discovery of the importance in denial of opposition zone entry.

Player Targets Carry% Break-up%
Byfuglien (D) 174 59.8% 15.5%
Jets Defenders (excl. Buff) 1153 58.2% 9.1%

Byfuglien (F) 15 60.0% 0.0%
Jets Forwards (excl. Buff) 165 42.4% 24.2%

Byfuglien's size and skating ability presents an intimidating force. Players tend to avoid zone entry from Byfuglien's side, shown by Byfuglien's extraordinarily low Target numbers relative to large ice time.

The players who do attempt succeed at a slightly above average level, although Byfuglien does break up the attempts at an impressive rate as well. The remaining percentage after carry-ins and break-ups are dump-in plays.

Microstatistics - Overall Neutral Zone Score

Tuslky (et al.) combined the effects of zone entries and zone exits in a formula to evaluate the overall neutral zone effectiveness in gaining and preventing zone entry. You can see an example of this being used at our Washington Capitals SBN affiliate.

NHL Rank (N=216, min: 250 mins) Names NZ Score NZ Score Relative % of On-Ice Z.E For Control% For Control% Against
8 Zach Bogosian 51.29% +3.71% 51.17% 44.20% 43.60%
14 Adam Pardy 51.40% +3.40% 49.75% 44.20% 36.50%
50 Dustin Byfuglien 49.64% +1.82% 49.98% 45.80% 47.50%
73 Tobias Enstrom 49.26% +1.14% 49.98% 41.70% 45.10%
133 Grant Clitsome 47.97% -0.71% 48.26% 46.10% 47.50%
190 Jacob Trouba 46.39% -2.78% 47.69% 41.30% 47.60%
204 Keaton Ellerby 45.35% -3.80% 46.98% 36.60% 44.20%
209 Mark Stuart 45.06% -4.42% 46.29% 39.60% 45.50%

Dustin Byfuglien performs superior to most of the Jets defenders in overall zone score. He also places nicely in the NHL in the top 60. While I do not have the numbers (yet) for the league, we can safely hazard a guess. Byfuglien the forward has been below team average in zone entries and denial of zone entries; therefore, he is almost assuredly below league average in overall Neutral Zone Score.

Offensive Zone

The offensive zone is supposed to be Byfuglien's "home". Where he performs well as either a high shot-volume defender with a booming shot and a knack at pinching, or as a front-net presence forward who can control possession down low.

Post Offensive Zone Face Off Shot Attempt Rates:


Click the image to expand.
Left is Byfuglien the defenseman, while right is Byfuglien the forward.
The lines represent the rate of shot attempts. Black is shot attempts for with the player on the ice, which you want to have higher than red (shot attempts for with the player off the ice). Blue is the shot attempts against with the player on the ice, which you want lower than green (shot attempts against with player off the ice).

This is extremely intriguing. Byfuglien is viewed offensively talented as both a forward and defensemen; however, his numbers after offensive zone faceoffs as a forward are not appealing. As a defensemen, the Jets experience a huge shot volume boost while actually repressing some shots against relative to norm. As a forward, the opposite is true with a huge deficit in shot volume and a slight amount of shot repression lost. In fact, the best comparable to Byfuglien's graph on the right is Chris Thorburn.

Some could be thrown up to line mates, but Byfuglien's most common linemates, while as a forward did not have the as poor of an effect.

Not exactly the results anyone expected.

Point Production

There are no microstatistics currently developed or tracked for the offensive zone, but there is one other statistic of note. This last season, where Byfuglien played part-time as a forward, his point production of 1.21 per 60 minutes of 5v5 time was hardly different than the previous two seasons where he posted 1.19 as a full time defender.

The only significant difference between the two was a shift in the goal-to-assist ratio.

Closing Thoughts

All this information can be summed up simply in a few sentences. Dustin Byfuglien is better as a defenseman than a forward in all measures except for defending a defensive zone face off. In fact, he is above average in almost every area as a defenseman, and below average in almost every area of a forward.

The defensive zone systems analysis by Justin Bourne adds to the equation. Byfuglien's defensive positioning is superior as a defenseman as well. There is the claim of "brain farts" and lost assignments. However, there is a strong possibility that Byfuglien's high number of events are driven by his high ice time rather than being poor in that era, much like his defensive zone turnovers.

Bonus Section: Opportunity Costs and Benefits

Too often, when statisticians or analysts make inferences on what is better, we fail to consider opportunity costs. For those who do not know about opportunity costs, an opportunity cost is relative to the next best option of that time or resource. Example: for a casual employee without vacation time, the cost of a vacation is the expenses plus the lost wages from not working.

There is an argument that the difference between Byfuglien the defender and his best ice time alternatives (Zach Bogosian and Jacob Trouba) is smaller than Byfuglien the forward and his best ice time alternatives (TJ Galiardi, Matt Halischuk, Eric O`Dell, Eric Tangradi, and Chris Thorburn).

This argument adds a layer in which the coach actually believes Byfuglien to be better at defense, but does not believe it to be the best choice.

Using data for defensemen and forwards between 2007-2012, the opportunity costs for alternatives to be placed into Byfuglien's 5v5 ice time can be estimated:
* The difference between Byfuglien the forward and the two most common fourth line players to receive promotions (Halischuk and Thorburn) is between 3-5 goals over a season.
* The difference between Byfuglien the defenseman and the two defensive candidates (Trouba and Bogosian) 4-5 goals over a season.

Why so similar? Well the reason is ice time. While the talent difference is greater with the forwards, the amount of ice time, and opportunity for impact, is severely less.

Which brings us to two possible (but not necessarily optimal) alternative ideas...

Put a superior on-ice result substitute like TJ Galiardi on the third line, and move Byfuglien back on defense, but not on the top pair:

Option 1) Place Byfuglien on his off-side on the second pair. The Jets have a huge drop off in talent on the left side after Enstrom. Without Byfuglien, the Jets only really have three proven top 4 calibre defensemen. Whether that be with Bogosian or Trouba depends on usage and chemistry. If anyone can play on their offside, it would be the multitalented Byfuglien.

Option 2) Place Byfuglien on the third pair. The average third pair defensmen plays just over thirteen minutes of 5v5 time. The average second line forward plays just under thirteen minutes. Byfuglien won't be losing any ice time. He will be in a position he performs better and can still help the team. This also allows severe sheltering of Byfuglien's defensive zone starts, if you are one still worried about that.

All graphs and data has been derived from Muneeb Alam's and Corey Sznadjer's amazing talents. Please give them a follow and support them in their work.